Maureen Corrigan

I'm feeling so cooped up these days that I sometimes find myself getting in the car and taking aimless rides to nowhere. Maybe that's what prompted me to finally check out an on-the-road novel that came out in February, right before the pandemic brought life-as-we-know-it to a hard stop.

"Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this."

That's what I said to my husband last month (or was it two months ago?) during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little Hollywood Squares cubes.

There's a black-and-white photo taped on my office door at school — the office I haven't been inside in almost a month. It shows an American soldier stretched out, reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's 1943 novel based on her childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

"It's hard to focus right now."

I've heard versions of that sentence on the phone, in person (at a distance), on email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, on Zoom and Skype and all the other devices and online platforms we're using to stay connected with each other these days.

It's hard to focus right now.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Lily King's 2014 novel "Euphoria" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made most critics' best books list that year. King has just brought out her fifth novel called "Writers & Lovers," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's another winner.

Writer's block can be temporary — or it can be massive and long lasting. After her third short story collection, Honey, came out in 1993, Elizabeth Tallent fell victim to a rockfall, avalanche, total-impasse-of-the-imagination writer's block and didn't publish another book for 22 years.

That's not to say Tallent didn't try. Here's one of the many passages in her profound new memoir, Scratched, in which she reflects on the onset of her writer's block and her attempts to break through:

Gish Jen has always had something of a "Frank Capra-esque" view of America. Like Capra, who directed immortal Hollywood films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life, Jen's big theme in her work is the promise of America — imperfect, erratic, but still worth cherishing. Her characters — most of them immigrants or first-generation Americans — are a variant of the "little guys" Capra also loved. They always find themselves up against a rigged system favoring the rich, powerful and white so-called "typical Americans" of her first novel's title.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. You probably wouldn't expect humor to be a key element in a story about child kidnapping and human trafficking in India. But our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Deepa Anappara's debut novel, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line," doesn't play to conventional expectations. Here's her review.

In the final pages of The Third Rainbow Girl — a new book about the aftermath of the murders of two young women who were hitchhiking in West Virginia in 1980 — author Emma Copley Eisenberg interviews a friend of the victims. Elizabeth Johndrow parted company with her friends a day before they were murdered; she's the "third rainbow girl" of the title.

Eisenberg asks Johndrow, now in her 50s, why she and so many other young women hitchhiked back then. Johndrow says:

It was over a year ago that I began to hear off-the-charts recommendations from trusted booksellers about a novel called American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. The novel's circle of admirers has since swelled to include the likes of Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham and Julia Alvarez.

Such a disparate line-up of blurbs signals what an unusual creature American Dirt is: It's a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.

Jean Stafford. Generally speaking, it's one of those literary names that readers might find sort-of familiar, without quite knowing why.

That wouldn't have been the case in Stafford's heyday, during the 1940s and 50s. Back then, Stafford's short stories were published in prestigious venues like the Partisan Review and The New Yorker. A collected edition of those stories even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970.

My best books of the year list for 2019 is a mix of literary fiction and true crime and memoirs and essays. There are acclaimed authors here, as well as some brand new voices. The only thing that unites all these books is that, in my opinion, they are unputdownable.

Some writers search for their signature subjects; Susannah Cahalan had her subject thrust upon her. In 2009, she was a young reporter for the New York Post when, one day, she began feeling like she had the flu. Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized, in the throes of full-blown hallucinations and paranoia.

This past summer, I made time to catch up on a book I'd missed when it was published two years ago. Ever since, I've been telling friends, students and random strangers on a train that they must read Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir called An Odyssey. In it, he recalls teaching a seminar on Homer's Odyssey that his then 81-year-old father sat in on as an auditor.

Editor's note: This book review cites a passage containing a homophobic slur.

One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas; he's black, gay and isolated; he's raised by a single mom; he struggles with identity, goes off to college and, eventually, achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation.

It's one of those poems people reach for in times when it feels like the sky is falling. It's also generally regarded as one of the great poems of the 20th century.

"September 1, 1939," as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany's invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home:

Now that it feels like we're living in a society that I find myself thinking of as "Gilead lite," how could The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, possibly convey the same degree of shock as its predecessor? The answer is, it can't.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, writer Sarah M. Broom was living in New York City, far away from her hometown and her family. In her extraordinary debut, a memoir called The Yellow House, Broom quotes from interviews with her mother and some of her 11 siblings to piece together the story of what happened when "the Water" roared into their neighborhood of New Orleans East and rose, up, up, up until it edged the tops of the houses.

Essayist Margaret Renkl writes about what she calls "backyard nature," which, to those of us who live in crowded cities, might call to mind creatures to trap or squash, like rats, squirrels, mice and water bugs. Renkl, however, grew up in Alabama and now lives in Tennessee, so her catalog of all creatures great and small is, at once, more expansive and accepting, and includes chickadees, red-tailed hawks, rat snakes, rattle snakes and crawdads.

Talk about chutzpah. Two female mystery writers have just helped themselves to the titles of two novels written by canonical male authors, without even a please or a thank you.

It's pretty rare for a writer to produce a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and, then, a scant three years later, bring out another novel that's even more extraordinary. But, that's what Colson Whitehead has done in following up his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, with The Nickel Boys.

Jessup Collins wants out. The main character of Alexi Zentner's tough new novel, Copperhead, Jessup is a 17-year-old high school football star with a decent shot at getting a college scholarship. That scholarship is essential because Jessup, his mom and his kid sister live paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer on the outskirts of an upstate New York town that sounds a lot like Ithaca.

Mary Beth Keane's new novel is called Ask Again, Yes.

What's it called again?

That's what everyone I've raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I've told them the title. It's one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof! into the air; but that's the only strike there is against Keane's novel which is, otherwise, one of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new novels of crime and suspense have our book critic Maureen Corrigan traveling to some dark places in her imagination this summer. Here's her review of James Ellroy's "This Storm" and Denise Mina's "Conviction."

Jill Ciment is one of those just-under-the-radar writers. Probably her biggest moment of popular recognition came a few years ago, when her novel, Heroic Measures, was made into a film called 5 Flights Up; it starred Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a married couple living in New York City who struggle to get their elderly dog to the vet in the midst of a terror alert. They wind up carrying the dog on a cutting board through the panicked city.

Here's an SAT word for you: "aptronym." An aptronym is a proper name that's especially "apt" for describing the person who bears it. Take Usain Bolt, the bolt-of-lighting Jamaican sprinter, or the poet William Wordsworth. Now, add to the list Ocean Vuong.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwitz died Monday unexpectedly at the age of 60. He was in the middle of a book tour promoting his new book, "Spying On The South." He's survived by his wife, the journalist Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. Before becoming a full-time author, Tony Horwitz covered wars and conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq for The Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America.

Editor's note: This review includes racial epithets that appear in the book.

In her foreword to America Is in the Heart — Carlos Bulosan's classic 1946 novel about Filipinx and Mexican migrant workers on the West Coast — the Filipina American novelist Elaine Castillo asks readers, "Do you remember how old you were when you first read a book that had a character who looked and lived like you in it?"

I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that crisscrosses the American cultural divide ever since his bestseller, Confederates in the Attic, came out in 1998.

Pages